Kiki’s Delivery Service & The Gift Economy (Houston Coley, Dec 28, 2023, Rabbit Room)
For what it is, I don’t think Kiki’s Delivery Service is even being entirely intentional about its depiction of the concept, but perhaps the notions of reciprocal gifts and hospitality are marginally more baked into the culture of Japan than much of the west. Kiki is a character who survives and thrives on gifts—gifts which draw her further into relationship with others.
The opening 10 minutes of the film feature two major gifts: Kiki’s iconic flying broomstick, which belonged to her mother and is said to “never lose its way, even in a storm,” and Kiki’s bright red portable radio, which is gifted by her father. As Kiki sets off into the brave world, broomstick coasting on the breeze and radio blasting ‘Rouge no Dengon’ by Yumi Matsutoya, she is already resting on the bed of generosity from her parents.
Many other gifts follow. When it begins to thunderstorm in the middle of the night, Kiki drops down into an empty boxcar and sleeps in the hay, serendipitously carried by the train to her next destination. When she arrives in the seaside town of Koriko, after wandering around aimlessly for an afternoon and being refused housing at various hotels because she’s not an adult, Kiki happens to meet the pregnant baker Osono. Osono is running out of her bakery holding a pacifier belonging to a woman and her baby who left moments ago—and in Kiki’s first act of generosity with her magic, she offers to fly the pacifier down to them at the bottom of the hill, leaving Osono gaping with wonder at her abilities.
Kiki’s singular gift—using her flying broomstick to deliver a small object to a woman who needs it—prompts Osono to invite her inside and offer her the hospitality of a cup of coffee…along with a bowl of milk for Kiki’s black cat Jiji. After hearing Kiki’s situation, she also generously extends the first major gift Kiki receives in Koriko: she offers to let her have the spare bedroom next to her bakery to stay for free, even if it’s caked in baking flour. Kiki, in turn, offers on numerous occasions to help out around the bakery.
Kiki’s ability to use her gift to give is what prompts her to consider a delivery service in the first place, reasoning that “I have one skill—flying—so I thought a delivery service was a good idea.” Kiki suggests using the money she’s saved up to pay for a phone for the delivery service, but Osono subsequently (and generously) says she’ll allow Kiki to use her phone and her bakery as the headquarters instead…and even spreads the word to her friends about what Kiki is doing.
As Kiki’s delivery service gains popularity, the concept of gifts becomes central to her life. The first thing Kiki delivers is a birthday gift, and when she returns from the delivery, Osono’s husband has kindly crafted her own “delivery service” signage for her from wood.
If you haven’t clued into it already, many of the characters in Kiki’s Delivery Service are just all-around lovely. I remember the first time I watched the movie, I was anxiously waiting for the moment when the “twist villain” would show up, more in line with western animation, and introduce the necessity of contrived conflict into the story. But the delightful thing about Kiki’s Delivery Service is that there are no real villains; just people being kind and generous to each other, and sometimes misunderstanding or getting burned out and nervous. It’s one of the reasons the movie is a comfort watch, and one of the reasons it’s a touching example of gift economy.